Art and Culture Belgium Learning

The UnSchool Trip: Art and History in Flanders

Art and History in Flanders
Written by Stuart Wickes

The UnSchool Trip: Art and History in Flanders

Stuart Profile SmallYour kids might find history, art or languages boring at school but they won’t in a visit to Flanders. Did you know you can appreciate art while pedalling a family sized go-kart along a beach? Or learn about Flanders WW1 trench warfare in a real trench? Or develop your language skills ordering fries and waffles in Belgian? A weekend in Flanders is perfect for an unschool crash course in the humanities, but maybe best not pitch it to the kids like that. We spent three days getting a feel for the action, art, architecture and history around coastal Flanders to pull together these curriculum ideas for you..

An education in assumptions

It’s easy to drive straight through a channel port on your way somewhere more picturesque and exciting.  I’ve always thought of port towns as either grimy industrial zones or giant duty free supermarkets so I’m surprised to find myself discovering art and architecture in Ostend. Even more surprised that I am doing so on a six seater go kart with ten year old Hannah at the wheel. I close my eyes as we weave between installations along the prom and pray that I will not end up like that poor parent whose 12-year-old tripped at a museum and broke his fall by putting his hand though a 350 year old $1.5m painting. I am reassured that we are not alone in this madness. And by the fact the art looks like it’s taken a few bashings already.

Go kart riding on Ostend Promenade through the art work, Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze

Go kart riding on Ostend Promenade through the art work, Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze

Art appreciation in Ostend

Ostend is the kind of city where you continually stumble across surprises. If you like making your own art then photographic opportunities are many and varied; check out the little Japanese Garden, Shin Kai Tei (deep sea garden) or visit the ornate neo-gothic church of Sint Petrus En Pauluskerk. If you prefer viewing the work of other artists then wander through the Royal Galleries – 400 metres of pillared shelters, built at the turn of the 20th century, which protect promenading people and provide a free open air gallery.

Royal Galleries Ostend, Open Air Art Gallery

Taking in a photographic exhibition at the Royal Galleries Ostend, an open air art gallery

Beachside art

Five and a half miles of beaches are one of the main draws of a visit to Ostend and it’s nice to see there are stretches which retain traditional wooden beach huts. But it’s the art that captures me. From Arne Quinze’s Rock Strangers to Herlinde Saeynave’s Umbra, you can spend several hours contemplating the public art before moving into well reviewed galleries like Mu.zee. I keep returning to the luminous orange ‘Rock Strangers’ to see how they reflect the environment at different times of the day.

Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze at Ostend, Belgium

Rock Strangers by Arne Quinze at Ostend, Belgium

Music, moules and digital meanderings

Wandering is a great way to let Ostend surprise you. Narrow streets with ornate facades compete for your time with long stretches of promenade where the biggest dilemma is whether to have moules or shrimps. Walking around we stumble across a funfair, a waffle stall and a mysterious white horse in an abandoned art deco hall.

If your kids like to wander with headphones in then the Tourism Ostend offer a range of digital audio walks that will help them forget they are walking. For history buffs try Ostend during the Great War, in which an old tram worker guides you around wartime Ostend. If art is more your thing you might prefer the digital Scent of Ostend in which the contemporary Ostend painter James Ensor shows you around. For an intriguing musical journey access the intriguingly named Marvin Gaye Midnight Love Walkumentary walking tour and discover Marvin Gaye’s relationship with Ostend.

Horse in Royal Galleries Ostend

Horse in Royal Galleries Ostend

Flanders WW1 history lesson

There’s no escaping Flanders WW1 Great War history on a visit here. For an active history lesson you can rent bikes and follow a 16 mile Flanders WW1 heritage trail which links up a series of historic sites including the Atlantikwall German Fortifications (about 6km from Ostend centre). Here you can lose the kids for an hour while exploring two kilometres of open and underground passages, bunkers and artillery positions in one of the best preserved parts of the infamous German ‘Atlantikwall’ defence line.

A further 14km down the coast at Nieuwpoort we visit Westfront and the huge sobering Albert l Memorial. It’s just a few days before Armistice day when we are there and lone poppies blow on the wind. The circular memorial has 20 columns with a mounted statue of King Alfred at its centre and a smart new visitor centre beneath tells stories of local contributions to life on the Western Front. For an extra fee you can go up in a lift to the top of the monument for a 360 degree view of the Ijzer plain from which you can pinpoint other monuments and memorials around the area.

From the top you can also see the Goose’s Foot, a complex of locks where the river Ijzer and several shipping and drainage canals come together. It’s famous for being flooded at the end of 1914 to drive back the German invasion, something you can try yourself virtually on one of the exhibits in the Westfront centre down beneath.

Albert l Memorial at Westfront, near Nieuwpoort, Belgium

Albert l Memorial at Westfront, near Nieuwpoort, Belgium

A dugout experience in Zonnebeke

Belgium played an important role in World War l and there are many museums and memorials that mark the Great War and intelligently and imaginatively tell its story. One of the most immersive museums for children is about an hour’s drive away from the coast. Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 (in Zonnebeke, near Ypres) keeps the memory alive of the ‘cruellest battle of WW1’ with beautiful gardens and an informative and moving network of spaces. Our teens, studying history at school, find their subject brought to life as they walk around the outdoor bunkers.

Flanders WW1 history lesson. In the trenches at Memorial Museum Passchendaele, Flanders, Belgium

Flanders WW1 history lesson in the trenches at Memorial Museum Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, near Ypres, Belgium

A war story

The museum does a good job of simplifying the overwhelming complexities of WWI by concentrating on the story of a single battle, the battle of Passchendaele. Over 400,000 soldiers died here in 1917 and Passchendaele became a symbol of and lesson in the great futility of war.  The museum tells the story of the battle, starting with a depiction of the events of 1917 before leading you into a Dugout and Trench Experience. The exhibits are varied – uniforms, maps, weapons and artillery. The presentation is simple. The place quiet. The juxtaposition jarring. We wander through a room full of missiles to be struck by the strange beauty of deadly colour coded munitions – gunpowder, shells, fuses and gas.

Examining Munitions at Memorial Museum Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, Belgium

Examining munitions at Memorial Museum Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, Belgium

Jarring beauty

Down underground in reconstructed dugouts, we duck heads as we weave our way around a maze of tunnels, wonder what it was like to construct these underground complexes and consider what it might have been like to try and sleep in one of the enclosed underground bunks while shells rained down above. Out in the trenches we talk about what it might be like to live knowing you will probably die, to put your head above the parapet and contemplate going over the top.

It’s not all horror though. Some of the exhibits are startlingly beautiful; like New Zealand artist Helen Pollock’s ‘Falls the Shadow’ with hands reaching up from a substrate made out of the Passchendaele earth. It’s all very thought provoking. Like a history lesson should be.

Falls the Shadow by Helen Pollock at MEMORIAL MUSEUM PASSCHENDAELE 1917

Falls the Shadow by Helen Pollock at Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, Zonnebeke

Time for treats in De Haan

When the bell rings and history is over, we are in need of refreshment and head back to the coast to De Haan, an elegant little bathing resort. De Haan boasts three nature reserves, the longest beach on the Belgian coast and a series of glorious wooded dunes but the kids have had enough outdoor action and reject the idea of a PE lesson style run along the prom.

I try to persuade them to join me on an architecture appreciation walk. In the Concession area clusters of buildings dating back to the Belle Epoche era stand side by side, providing the perfect opportunity to compare and contrast design features and discuss the influence of King Leopold ll’s involvement in the ornate designs. There’s even the only Belle Epoch tram station on the Flemish coast. But none of that seems to arouse interest, with or without a microscooter.

Finally I suggest a competition to take selfies with Albert Einstein. Images and sculptures can be found around the town commemorating the fact he lived in De Haan for six months after escaping Nazi Germany before WWll. But it’s all to no avail. School’s out and the only thing the kids want is tea. Luckily De Haan is just the place for that with some fine traditional tea rooms and brasseries, some of which are in the very ornate buildings I want to see. If I’m lucky, Einstein might be there too. And even if he isn’t we can all practice our Belgian trying to order tea, cakes or more waffles.

Gemeentehuis - De Haan at Night, Belgium

Gemeentehuis – De Haan at Night, Belgium

Practical Information

Getting there

We travelled to Belgium with P&O Ferries on a 90 minute Dover to Calais crossing. There are about 20 crossings a day so you can pick a time to suit your schedule. Ypres, Ostend, Nieuwpoort and the Flanders coast are about 80-100km or around 90 minutes drive from Calais. We used P&Os Priority Boarding for speedier boarding and disembarkation which the journey a little slicker and used the Club Lounge to get away from the crowds and enjoy free soft drinks, tea, coffee, snacks, newspapers and wifi.

P&O also offer an overnight service from Hull to Zeebrugge, a more direct way to access Flanders. Overnight crossings add to the excitement. You can book a cabin, sleep on board, arrive refreshed, having had breakfast if you want, ready for a full day’s action. With two nights accommodation on board (on the way out and back) it can help reduce your accommodation bill on the continent.

P&O Ferry Club Lounge at Dover

P&O Ferry Club Lounge at Dover

Tourist Information

There is a good network of tourist information offices and websites providing information on things to do around Flanders, the Belgian coast and in specific towns. English is widely spoken and most websites have an English Language option. Visit Flanders has lots of information on the region and the Flanders coast.  Visit Ostend is useful for attractions in the Ostend area. Nieuwpoort and De Haan have their own mini sites. For detailed information on opening hours and prices of the attractions mentioned, follow links to the attractions websites, embedded in the article above. For more ideas check this companion post on Active Family Fun on the Flanders Coast.

Family Fun at Flanders Coast

For more ideas check our companion post about Family Fun at Flanders Coast


We stayed at the modern Hotel Cosmopolite in Nieuwpoort, convenient for coastal attractions, ferry ports and historical sites inland. It’s comfortable and well appointed with 20 family rooms, each with two bedrooms and shared bathroom. It has a very original Carousel restaurant complete with full size carousel horses and a cosy bar serving Belgian beers. Kids will love the TV in their room and free internet access while parents appreciate the separate bedrooms.

There’s lots of other accommodation options to suit all budgets from small independent operators to the big hotels chains, especially in and around the bigger towns and cities. Bruges would make another good base for a short break in Flanders, with opportunity for a taste of Belgian city life yet within easy reach of all the attractions here.

Bruges and Canals at Night

Bruges and canals at night. Bruges would make a good base for a Flanders break.

Disclosure Note: We travelled to the Belgian Coast with Visit Flanders and P&O Ferries who organised cross channel ferries, accommodation and entry to some of the attractions listed here. All the curriculum ideas, history, art and architecture lessons were, as ever, entirely our own.

This post is part of the #citytripping linky

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!


  • I remember going to Flanders on a school trip in my teens and I’m sure I didn’t learn anywhere near as much as this trip – I had no idea how much there was to do in Ostend, for starters. The museum sounds fascinating though, a really thought-provoking way to look at the war. And much as I love Bruges, it’s lovely to see another side to the area. Thanks for linking to #citytripping

  • A very educational trip – it’s all very well reading about the war in books but seeing where it took place and connecting with some of the stories is far more educational. We went to Ypres briefly on our way back from Bruges a couple of years back to see the grave of my husband’s great-grandad. It was incredibly moving looking at all the monuments and helping to put in perspective the lives lost in the Great War. Thanks for linking up to #citytripping

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